Farm to Landfill

Posted on in On Our Radar by Kamayani Gupta

The Cost of Food
Waste in America


Time and time again, fancy, high-cost solutions persevere in society. Headlines focus on the newest technology promising to reinvent world systems while simple solutions that can make the greatest impact are brushed aside. The issue of food waste often falls through the cracks of collective interest, but through modest intervention could provide huge returns not only in agricultural production and nutrition but also in industries such as energy and water.

Moving food from farm to table accounts for 50% of land use in the US, 10% of total energy consumption, and 80% of all freshwater used. Yet only 60% of the food produced in the US is actually eaten, with 52% of fruits and vegetables thrown out, leading to $165 billion of food waste each year. With one in eight Americans lacking proper food security and one in four calories produced never eaten, it is vital to increase the efficiency of food systems in all steps of the production chain. From farmers and distributors to governments and consumers, all parties must work together to ensure the basic right of every single human to have access to food.

Farmers tell absurd stories about the quantity of produce left behind. Interviews with peach farmers found that 8 out of 10 peaches grown cannot be sold due to the unmarketable appearance of the fruit. A cucumber farmer estimated that less than half the vegetables he grows actually leave his farm and that 75% of those removed before sale are edible. Perhaps most egregiously, a large tomato-packing house reported that they can fill a dump truck with 22,000 pounds of discarded tomatoes every 40 minutes. Looking specifically at fruits and vegetables, 1%–4% of produce is left in the field after harvesting, up to 30% of the product is discarded during packaging, and 20% is lost during production.

fruits and vegetables on the ground

So why are large quantities of edible produce being thrown out? The reasons are abundant; here are a few:

» Overplanting: Farmers face penalties if they do not provide dependable volumes to their buyers, regardless of weather or pests, leading to increased planting.

» Cosmetic quality: Workers and packing institutions are trained to skip over small, misshapen, or otherwise “ugly” produce because the size and cosmetic quality of the crop does not meet the standards of buyers, leading to 30% of produce being discarded.

» Anticipatory packing: Packing facilities guess their daily orders in advance of receiving actual orders but do not have space for the surplus, leaving approximately 1% to be thrown out daily.

» Supermarkets: These stores remove produce two to three days prior to its sell-by date to keep their brand intact because consumers want only the freshest of produce.

» Logistics: Due to produce traveling long distances, it is difficult to find refrigerated spaces to keep surplus items or to allow for donations.

While all this seems disheartening, methods are being undertaken to improve the food production process. Initiatives are proposed whereby all players shoulder the risks that come with farming. Meaning that, for example, if there is a drought, it would fall not only to the farmer to handle the burden of a limited supply. Concurrent picking, started by the California Association of Food Banks, allows imperfect produce to be picked at the same time as other items, packed into reusable containers, and stored in shipper coolers for pick up by food banks. Entrepreneurs and businesses are also helping, with start-ups such as Imperfect Produce, Hungry Harvest, Grocery Outlet, Snact, and Querfeld selling produce to consumers that is ugly but edible, for a discounted price.

The beauty of the food waste problem is that the solutions are endless—from selling prepackaged, chopped-up ugly produce to creating puree mixes for soups, stews, and even baby food. And with farmers tossing this produce aside due to inefficiencies in the consumer market, the margins can be huge. However, it is in the realm of logistics and operations where improvements are needed in order to make use of our food waste. Logistics remains the unsexy part of a process, but if it can start on a local level, the entire operation can help fuel the local economy in areas such as Detroit and Chicago, which face large food deserts.

As our population continues to grow, food security will remain a key issue and impresses on us the need to ensure that all food produced is utilized. There is no need for a person to go hungry when 50% of produce thrown out in the US is edible. The opportunities exist; it is now up to us to create systematic changes by making lemonade out of misshapen lemons.

Kamayani Gupta is a managing consultant at IBM Watson Health, public speaking coach for executives and entrepreneurs, food security advisor to start-ups, and international development consultant for organizations impacting the bottom billion. • [email protected]

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